May 23, 2012

Fischler Report: Let's hope shot-blocking craze is just a fad

By Stan Fischler

Many NHL coaches swear by shot-blocking.

But many NHL critics swear against the growing technique.  

Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi braces himself as he goes down to block a shot. (Getty Images)

The Calgary Sun’s Eric Francis is one such learned foe of the shot-blocking craze. He explains:   

For the sake of the game, let’s hope this shot blocking craze is just a fad.

Otherwise, kids will have yet another reason to quit hockey.

Not only is it painful to watch on TV, but absolutely nobody alive likes the prospect of stepping in front of a hard rubber disc travelling faster than most cars on the highway.

When you are paid millions of dollars to play the game and a Stanley Cup is within sight, it’s understandable to see guys making such sacrifices.

However, when you are just a kid playing the game at any level, the last thing you want to do is block shots with regularity.

Any minor hockey coaches out there who think incessant shot-blocking is the new trend need to know eight of the top-11 shot-blocking teams in the NHL missed the playoffs this season.

In other words, just because the New York Rangers have survived this long based largely on the fact they’re responsible for more blocks than Lego doesn’t mean it can be relied on as a tactic.

The focus for kids needs to be skill development and not something as painful, dangerous and unnecessary as throwing your body in front of slap-shots and risking even more injury than the game already threatens.

Let the goalies make the saves – that’s why they have that bulky equipment designed especially for such a task.

Otherwise, enrollment and viewership in our great sport will continue to decline in this country.

FANS NOTICE CALDER CUP CONTENDERS

Our man in Toronto, Robert Del Mundo, takes note of increased AHL interest in Leafs Country:

The tribulations of the Maple Leafs are well documented, with the team now having the unfortunate distinction of being the only NHL franchise not to have made the playoffs at least once in the seven seasons that have been played since the work stoppage.

But playoff hockey is still alive in Toronto. The Leafs AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies, are one of four teams remaining in the Calder Cup playoffs. And, unlike four years ago when the Marlies also made it to the semi-finals, fans in Toronto are taking notice.

For much of the farm team’s existence in this city – the St. John’s Maple Leafs having moved to Toronto in 2005 to become the Marlies – the home rink, Ricoh Coliseum, has been filled with empty seats.

In 2008, a squad coached by Greg Gilbert and backstopped by (former BC standout) Scott Clemmensen in goal played in front of sparse crowds, despite two thrilling Game Sevens played on home ice. Average attendance over the 10 playoff games at Ricoh that year was just 2,909.

The indifference reinforced the premise that Toronto is a Leafs town, not a ‘hockey’ town. The low turnout was also attributed to the 2008 Marlies having few blue-chip prospects, none of which are in the Leafs’ organization any longer. 

However, the presence of young NHL-caliber talent that was not evident four years ago has finally generated some excitement around the team.  Fans are flocking to watch key components of the Leafs future such as defenseman Jake Gardiner and forward Matt Frattin, who combined to play in 131 NHL games in 2011-12.  

Nazem Kadri – the Leafs first-round pick in 2009 – is still a work in progress, but his creativity can’t be ignored. Expectations are also high for Joe Colborne, who was acquired last season from the Boston Bruins when Tomas Kaberle was traded.  

In goal, Ben Scrivens has had a strong playoff to follow up his 2012 regular season when he was named the winner of the Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award for giving up the fewest goals in the AHL.

Over the first two rounds, the first four home playoff games at Ricoh Coliseum were attended by an average of 6,310 people; more than double the figure from 2008. Two extra media work areas have been assembled to accommodate the amount of press covering the games.  

Coach Dallas Eakins is far busier fielding questions during his post-game commentary than his predecessor Gilbert was, four years ago.

The next two games are at Ricoh Coliseum, and a packed house is expected for each one.

While a frustrated fan base waits impatiently for its NHL team to return to the post-season, Toronto fans are finally starting to take notice of the future players who they hope will help clear the hurdle.

TORTORELLA MAKES HISTORY

The National Hockey league is 95 years old and in almost a century of big league play, there never has been so much attention paid to a post-game press conference than that attracted by John Tortorella (Melrose, Mass.).

The Rangers head coach has magnetized the media with his sometimes brief, sometimes not so brief and always electrifying scrums after a playoff game.

As a result, columnists on both sides of the border have zeroed in with lengthy pieces about Torts with even more in the works.

What’s more, the Blueshirts boss keeps ‘em guessing in terms of how he will respond to any given question.

Why the attraction?

Because it is captivating theater and all you have to do is watch the expressions on the SRO press crowd.

This much is certain; whether you like it or not, Tortorella is sincere with his replies whether he’s being eloquent or terse.

The Man brooks neither nonsense nor wasted words.

A good example was evident on Monday morning prior to Game 4 with the Devils.

The issue was how much ice time defenseman Stu Bickel would obtain.

The question and answer period may have set speed records. To wit:

      Q: Are you comfortable with Bickel’s play away from the puck when he is up front?

      Tortorella: I don’t know what my lineup is today.

      Q: How about if he plays three weeks from now?

      Tortorella: I don’t know what my lineup would be then.

ECHL CONTINUES STRONG ATTENDANCE

For the 19th consecutive season, over three million fans attended ECHL games during the 2011-12 season.

The 20 ECHL teams welcomed 3,082,764 fans this season, for an average of 4,281 per game, marking the eighth straight season and the 20th time in the last 22 seasons that the per-game average has exceeded 4,000 fans.

The Ontario (California) Reign led the ECHL for the third straight season with an average of 6,309 per game. Ontario, which finished second in the league in its inaugural season in 2008-09, has welcomed over 910,000 fans in its first four seasons.

Toledo surpassed the 6,000 fans per game mark for the second time in three seasons with 6,252 per game, an increase of 5.0 percent over last season.

Stockton went over the 200,000 mark in total attendance for the seventh straight season.

The Thunder, which led the league in attendance for their first four seasons, have never finished below third in the league in final attendance.

In their first season in the ECHL, the Colorado Eagles sold out all 36 games at the 5,289-seat Budweiser Events Center, extending the team’s minor-league hockey record to 347 consecutive sellouts.

In addition to Toledo, six other ECHL teams saw an increase in attendance over the 2010-11 season, led by the Trenton Titans, who saw a 26.1 percent increase over the Trenton Devils attendance last season.

GOSSIP

Bruins president Cam Neely has joined the chorus urging a review of hockey equipment. “I’d rather have a player with a separated shoulder than someone with a concussion,” Neely told the Boston Globe. “I don’t know why it’s that difficult to look at the equipment and say, ‘We really need to do something with the shoulder pads and elbow pads.” …

While Sharks coach Todd McLellan awaits word on whether he will be re-hired for next season, his captain Joe Thornton has given the skipper his endorsement. “Todd is a great coach and guys love playing for him,” says Thornton. But the question is whether GM Doug Wilson shares the captain’s view. We should know sooner rather than later. …

Elsewhere in Shark-Land, word out of San Jose is that Colin White’s first year with the club was likely his last. Here’s what Kevin Kurz of CSNCalifornia.com had to say: “White’s return to San Jose is highly unlikely. The Sharks will try to upgrade their blue line this offseason, and it already seems as if Brad Stuart is there for the taking if they want him. Furthermore, White’s family remains on the East Coast, so he’ll probably try and sign somewhere closer to where they are -- if an offer from another club arises, that is.” …

What about Alain Vigneault’s future in Vancouver? The word we get is that GM Mike Gillis will give his guy one more chance. …

And it looks like Roberto Luongo may remain in Vancouver. Gillis said bringing back both goalies, Luongo and Cory Schneider (Marblehead, Mass.), for another season is a “distinct possibility.”